What’s that you say? It’s way too early for a 2016 Senate preview? Can’t I switch to decaf and calm down? Nonsense! What’s more fun than wildly speculating about the 115th Congress when the 114th has barely started? Besides, everyone knows the election cycle starts early in presidential years.

As I wrote in my 2014 elections post-mortem, I’m not as optimistic about the Democrats’ chances of retaking the Senate in 2016 as most political pundits are. That said, the Democrats still have a better map than the Republicans do, and, barring disaster, should pick up seats. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the 13 most competitive races.

Competitive Under Special Circumstances

Ohio: This race will not be competitive if Republican Rob Portman runs for a second term. Portman is one of the most well-qualified and well-liked Senators. He won his seat in 2010 by an 18 percent margin, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be at least as popular in 2016. He’s one of the few Senate Republicans who supports same-sex marriage, and his successful stint as Vice-Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee proved his fund-raising acumen.

But Portman might not be on the ballot. Though he has announced that he will not run for President, the Ohio Senator is widely considered a potential Vice-Presidential pick. If he is chosen, Portman may abandon his reelection bid, leaving a wide-open seat in America’s most prominent swing state. However, the Republicans would still probably retain the seat, given the Democrats’ weak bench in Ohio.

Prediction: Republican hold

Florida: As in Ohio, Florida is most likely only a possibility for Democrats if the incumbent doesn’t run. Marco Rubio is not quite as strong a candidate as Portman, but he’s nonetheless formidable in a state that leans ever-so-slightly to the right. Rubio is an excellent fund-raiser, and his Cuban heritage and support for immigration reform could help him to make inroads with Florida’s non-Cuban Hispanic population, which typically votes Democratic.

However, Rubio has been openly considering a Presidential bid in 2016, and Florida law prohibits him from running for both the Senate and the Presidency simultaneously. Thus, if Rubio decides to run for President, he would be forced to abandon his Senate seat. If Rubio does run for President, any number of Florida Congressmen and women could seek his seat. Reps. Gwen Graham, Patrick Murphy, and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz are possible Democratic nominees, while Republicans can expect a number of state officer-holders and members of Congress to enter the race. Once again, the Republicans will start with a small advantage if it’s an open seat: Only one Democrat has been elected Senator or Governor in Florida since 1994.

Prediction: Republican hold

Iowa: In all likelihood, Chuck Grassley’s seat will not be competitive in 2016. Grassley won reelection in 2010 with 64 percent of the vote, and has already represented Iowans for six terms. However, Grassley will be 83 in 2016, and while he currently plans to seek reelection, he could change his mind. If he does, you can expect Democrats to pour massive amounts of cash into this swing state.

Prediction: Republican hold

West Virginia: There aren’t any Senate seats up for election in West Virginia in 2016. However, West Virginia will elect a new Governor in 2016, and current Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is openly considering running for his old job. He’s made it clear that if dysfunction in Washington doesn’t abate quickly — and that doesn’t look likely — he’ll make another bid to lead his home state. If he does run for Governor and win, Republicans will be the overwhelming favorites to win a 2017 special election for his seat. If this costs the Democrats the majority, I will pitch a fit. I’m warning you now.

Prediction: Manchin runs for Governor and wins, Republicans gain the seat in 2017.

Competitive if Primary Challenges Successful

Arizona: John McCain, the seventh most liberal Republican in the Senate, is widely expected to see a primary challenge if he chooses to seek a sixth term. McCain is a target for a variety of reasons: his age (he will be 80 in 2016), his support for immigration reform, his refusal to defund the Affordable Care Act during the 2013 government shutdown, and his position on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” among other things. The Arizona Republican Party has further contributed to the anti-McCain sentiment by censuring him at a 2014 party meeting. McCain easily defeated a primary challenger in 2010, but the Citizens United Supreme Court decision had only just taken effect at that time, so outside groups that have been so influential in recent Republican primaries (The Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund, etc.) did not have the spending capacity that they now have. In 2016, though, these organizations could seriously threaten for McCain if they were to support one of his opponents.

If McCain loses his primary or retires, Arizona could represent a real opportunity for Democrats. The Grand Canyon State is usually Republican at the statewide level, but Democratic success are not unheard of. Janet Napolitano held the governorship of Arizona from 2003–2009, and Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996. Moreover, a growing Hispanic population is strengthening the Democratic base there, and a majority of the state’s federal Congressional delegation is now Democratic. Arizona is slowly turning purple, and 2016 could be the year that it gets a Democratic Senator.

Prediction: Republican hold

Alaska: The Senate race in Alaska in 2010 was a remarkable one. Incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski lost to Joe Miller in the Republican primary, but went on to keep her seat anyway, winning the general election as write-in candidate. However, Murkowski may again face a challenge from the right during her 2016 primary campaign. She was the second most liberal Senate Republican during the 113th Congress, which may arouse the ire of national conservatives. Granted, Democrats are unlikely to win Alaska even if Murkowski loses her primary, but if 2016 is somehow a Democratic wave year, they could have an outside chance with a strong candidate.

Prediction: Republican hold


Nevada: Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is not popular in Nevada. His approval rating is in the low-40s, and Republicans could easily depict him as a creature of our extremely unproductive Congress. He squeaked by in 2010 against a weak opponent, but he probably won’t be as lucky this time. Brian Sandoval, the well-liked Republican governor of Nevada, is poised to challenge Reid. Sandoval has an approval rating in the mid-60s, and just won reelection in a landslide. It’s possible that Reid may not even run in 2016; indeed, while he’s claimed he will seek reelection, he will be nearly 77 on election day, and there are whispers about his health (author’s note: I wrote this part of the piece before a New Year’s Day accident turned those whispers into blaring foghorns). If Sandoval enters the race, it appears Reid has little chance of remaining in the Senate come 2017.

Prediction: Republican pick-up

Colorado: Colorado is the other potential Republican pickup in 2016. Democrat Michael Bennet barely won a first term in 2010 against a weak opponent, and in 2016 he faces an electorate that just threw out his senior colleague and fellow Democrat Mark Udall. However, as Politico notes, Bennet has an built an excellent fund-raising network from his work as 2014 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chair. Furthermore, while Colorado is as purple as it gets, Bennet will benefit from the more diverse electorate that turns out in Presidential election years. Recent statewide results also bode well for Bennet: Democrats have won 9 of the last 11 Governor terms in Colorado, and 3 of the last 5 Senate terms. All things considered, Bennet may well hang onto his seat in 2016.

Prediction: Democratic hold

North Carolina: Don’t laugh, okay? Yes, North Carolina is still mostly a red state, and yes, Republican Senator Richard Burr has a twenty year history in Congress. However, North Carolina has a history of tossing out sitting Senators. In fact, Burr’s reelection in 2010 made him one of only two North Carolina Senators in the past 40 years to serve more than a single term. The unceremonious dismissals of Kay Hagan in 2014 and Elizabeth Dole in 2008 confirm that this trend is still alive, and it could come to bite Burr in 2016. Burr only managed 55 percent of the vote in 2010, meaning he might have hovered closer to 50 percent had been a Presidential election year. Moreover, Burr took substantial political heat in 2014 over his offensive letter condemning several veterans organizations. Combined with his questionable commitment to veterans benefits, this could create a convincing narrative against Burr for an opponent in 2016. Unfortunately, Democrats don’t yet have an obvious challenger to face him: their best option, current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, has made it clear he won’t run against Burr. Nevertheless, if the Donkeys manage to find a credible candidate, this race could become close quickly.

Prediction: Republican hold

New Hampshire: New Hampshire will be a top target for the Democrats in 2016, as they’ve won the state at the Presidential level in five of the last six elections. Kelly Ayotte is a less-than-moderate Republican who opposed the Toomey-Manchin background check bill and New Hampshire’s legalization of same-sex marriage. Combined with her single term resumé, conservatism could make her vulnerable in socially liberal New Hampshire. If Democrats manage to recruit incumbent governor Maggie Hassan to challenge her, Ayotte may face a fight for her political life. Indeed, Democrats might easily lure Hassan to run for Senate in 2016, as she might prefer the security of a six-year term to fighting for reelection every two years as governor. Regardless of who they run, Democrats will pour an ocean of cash into New Hampshire.

Prediction: Republican hold

Wisconsin: Republican Ron Johnson may the incumbent most out of sync with his electorate. Wisconsin generally tilts left in Presidential years, and Johnson has ties to the Tea Party. He also does not believe in man-made global warming, opposes stem-cell research, and opposed Toomey-Manchin against the wishes of his own electorate. The Senator was barely elected to a first term in 2010, one of the strongest Republican years ever, meaning he is likely to struggle in 2016. The Democrats will have an additional advantage if former Senator Russ Feingold decides to seek his old seat. Feingold remains popular in Wisconsin despite his 2010 loss to Johnson, and his recent stint as a special envoy to Africa can only help his chances. While Feingold is a progressive’s dream candidate, Democrats would also have an excellent chance to win the seat if they nominate current Rep. Ron Kind.

Prediction: Democrat pick-up

Pennsylvania: It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Democrats retake the Senate in 2016 without winning Pennsylvania. Republican Senator Pat Toomey just barely squeaked into office in 2010, and will almost certainly be near the top of the Democratic hit list in 2016. While probably not as radical as Ron Johnson, Toomey ranked as the 33rd most conservative Republican Senator, meaning that he’s easily to the right of Pennsylvania’s electorate. Moreover, Public Policy Polling has Toomey’s approval rating below water, with 28 percent approving of the Senator, compared to 35 percent disapproving. Most damning for his chances, though, is the failure of his fellow Republican, former Gov. Tom Corbett, to turn in an even mildly respectable statewide performance in the solidly Republican 2014. Toomey will likely only survive if Democrats nominate a weak candidate. Former Rep. Joe Sestak will probably end up as their nominee, and, despite his 2010 loss to Toomey, is likely strong enough to defeat the Republican in a Presidential year.

Prediction: Democratic pick-up

Illinois: Despite his indications to the contrary, many speculate that incumbent Republican Mark Kirk will retire in 2016. Even if Kirk does run, Republicans will be hard-pressed to hold this seat in blue Illinois. Incumbency is barely an advantage for Kirk, given that 34 percent of his constituents don’t know enough about him to form an opinion of him. Kirk also has faced health issues recently, which may damage his chances. Regardless, even under the best circumstances for Republicans, Illinois is still a state where the best Republican Presidential candidates lose by 10 percent of the vote. If the Democrats pick a credible candidate, it would likely take something resembling a crisis for them to lose. Assuming neither of the Obamas are interested, I think the party would do quite well to nominate current Rep. Tammy Duckworth. Congresswoman Duckworth has a remarkable personal story, and her personal popularity would make her a formidable Senate candidate. On a side note, if she wins, she would be the first physically disabled woman to serve in the Senate.

Prediction: Democratic pick-up

Parting Thoughts

As the astute reader may have observed, my 2016 Senate predictions have the Republicans retaining the Senate comfortably with 53 seats. Much can change in the next two years, however, and a sudden retirement or two could drastically enhance the Democrats’ prospects. Should that occur, 2016 could become one of the most entertaining election years ever.

Brett Parker, a sophomore studying political science, is a staff writer at Stanford Political Journal.